Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Otra Voz Canta / Desaparecidos

The following video, also posted at the end of my blog entry "On Torture: No me pongas la capucha", really sums up everything I have written and expresses it far better than I ever could. In it, Daniel Viglietti sings "Otra voz canta" and Mario Benedetti recites his poem "Desaparecidos". Even if you don't speak Spanish, listen to the words and watch the images. You will understand.

On Torture

On Torture: No me pongas la capucha.

Photo taken by William Shelton in Guatemala City, July 1988

No te suplico. Te advierto: no me pongas la capucha.
     – Mario Benedetti

Knowing where to start is somewhat difficult. Do I begin with the recent release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report on CIA Torture? Or do I go back further and, if so, how much further? How do I tie everything that is floating around in my head and consciousness together into one coherent thread. I’m not sure. Maybe I should simply state what is on my mind.

When the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, photographs of prisoners taken by or turned over to American forces began to circulate almost immediately. Invariably, those prisoners were hooded and bound. The photos were  uncomfortably familiar to me. I had seen them before – often. Since then, the similarities between what I was already well aware of and what was now happening, endorsed and carried out by the US government, have become all too apparent.

We have been shocked – or not – by the release of the report on the use of torture by the US military and the CIA in the so-called war on terror. The report details many, many instances of “enhanced interrogation techniques” or “alternative methods”.  The current presidents of Chile, Brazil and Uruguay – Michele Bachelet, Dilma Rousseff and José Mujica, respectively – can all give personal and intimate testimony about this. They experienced it first hand: Bachelet for one year, Rousseff for three years and Mujica for 13, often at the hands of agents trained by the United States. They call those “techniques” by their correct name: torture. If you want to know what was done to them, just read the Senate Report. It’s all there.

There is a constant immediately apparent in the Senate report, information reported in the US press about Afghanistan, Iraq and the “War on Terror” and the experiences of prisoners throughout the Americas and elsewhere: hoods. Invariably, prisoners have been hooded and bound when taken and transported so they could neither see nor move. They are completely defenseless, totally at the mercy of their captors, be they South American agents of repression in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s or representatives of the US and their proxies today. The remaining “techniques” are also the same.

As a young woman – kidnaped by Chile’s military, tortured and then expelled from the country alone at age 16 – stated in testimony reported by the Centro de Estudios Miguel Enriquez in 2013:

“They always taped our eyes shut, blindfolded us and then covered our heads with a hood. They would laugh at us, offer us food and then give us orange peels. They kept us awake at night so we would lose all notion of time.”

I have left out the more graphic details of the abuse she was subjected to, largely out of respect for her and all of the other victims who suffered similar fates in myriad other prisons scattered about this hemisphere and elsewhere, including at the CIA’s so-called black sites and US military facilities.

Many of these Latin American torturers and their superiors were trained by the US military and / or CIA agents masquerading as US AID officials. One of the better known examples of the latter was Dan Mitrione, captured and executed by Uruguay’s Tupamaros guerrillas in 1970.  Mitrione advocated using "the precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired effect,” according to William Blum in his work cited below. A large number of known torturers and advocates attended the US Army’s School of the Americas either in Panama or at Fort Benning, Georgia after that school was moved there in 1984. Among its more notorious graduates are Argentina’s Generals Viola, Videla and Galtieri, Bolivia’s General Banzer, numerous underlings of Chile’s General Pinochet, El Salvador’s Roberto D'Aubuisson who planned and ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. There are countless others from too many countries to name here, but least one graduate, Argentina’s Colonel Mario Davico, went on to advise El Salvador’s military during the 1980s about what was cynically called the "Argentine Method". That “method”, used during Argentina’s “dirty war” from about 1974 to 1983 included arbitrary detention, torture, extrajudicial executions and ways to dispose of victims’ bodies.  Hoods were omnipresent. There are still over 30,000 Argentines missing from that “war”, which was nothing more than state terrorism.

To give you an idea of how extensive the US’s involvement in the promulgation of torture has been, you will find a table reproduced below. It documents the training of both the military and police by the US in countries which have been identified as  practicing torture by Amnesty International.  Please note that this table includes neither El Salvador during Ronald Reagan’s administration nor Cuba prior to 1959. It also only covers a period of 29 years, ending 35 years ago. In short, it is extremely out of date – and yet it is also extremely telling...

Countries with US Training using Torture  – 1946 to 1975, Identified by Amnesty International

Source: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Chomsky N, Herman ES, Spokesman (1979), ISBN 0-89608-090-0, pg 361.

So why am I delving into this “old news” in response to the Senate Report? If you have been paying attention the last several decades, you already know this is just a repeat of the past. Our use and sponsorship of torture abroad is long and ignoble. We have done this before and, unless we react and make ourselves heard, we will do it again and again and again. As Americans, we have short memories. We forget because, well, it’s just a whole lot easier to do so if we want to keep on selling ourselves as the New Jerusalem, the shining city on the hill, a country that always takes the high road. Unfortunately for us, we are the only ones buying this deception. The rest of this world knows. Today it is the Middle East. Yesterday, it was Latin America and Southeast Asia, and over one hundred years ago, it was the Philippines during the Moro Rebellion after a glorious little war with Spain fought only to expand our empire. And tomorrow, who knows. At some point, if we continue being momentarily shocked at this country’s transgression du jour, only to forget as soon as it is convenient for us to do so, the chickens will come home to roost.

As Mario Benedetti says in his poem "No me pongas la capucha", cited above, “I am not begging you; I am warning you: Do not cover my head with a hood.”

Suggested Bibliography:

Blum, William. Killing Hope. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2008. Updated edition.

Langguth, A.J. Hidden Terrors. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Brown, Cynthia, ed. With Friends Like These: The Americas Watch Report on Human Rights and U.S. Policy in Latin America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

CONADEP (Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared). Nunca Más: A Report by Argentina’s National Commission on the Disappeared. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986.

Feitlowitz, Marguerite. A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture, Revised and Updated. London: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Brazil Archdiocese of São Paulo, author, Joan Dassin, ed. and contributor. Torture in Brazil: A Shocking Report on the Pervasive Use of Torture by Brazilian Military Governments. Austin: Univerity of Texas Press. 1998.

Human Rights Watch. Guatemala: Getting Away with Murder. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1990

Further information about the School of the Americas, recently rebaptized as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, is available at the following website:

School of the Americas Watch: Click here.

The following link from School of the Americas Watch website makes available training manuals advocating the use of torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations that were used at and by the School of the Americas. :  Click here.

The following video, in which Daniel Viglietti sings "Otra voz canta" and Mario Benedetti recites his poem "Desaparecidos" expresses far better than I can everything written above. Even if you don't speak the language, listen to the words and watch the images. You will understand.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving 2014 - Juiz de Fora, Minas Gerais, Brazil

I’ve been ambivalent about Thanksgiving for several decades, given its origins and my own personal history. After all, we know that the myth it is built upon - arising from that supposed first celebration shared by Pilgrims and Natives way back when - consciously denies what came afterwards: wars of genocide, centuries of lies and abuse, an eternity of broken promises and treaties, and a deep, blood-red stain on our country’s soul. This year, however, I’ve had to rethink my posture. No, I haven’t been wrong all of these years. That’s not the issue. It is my son, Jack, aged seven.

Jack, my little man, is my mirror. He is, in so many ways, who I was so very many years ago. He makes me look back at when I, too, was more innocent and did not understand the “subtleties” that history throws at us. He, like me, loves his country and he, like me, lives far, far away from our homeland. Unlike me, it was not his choice but, in spite of his tender age, he remembers where he is from and identifies with the United States. Yes, my son is thoroughly American.

A few days ago, he called me up at work to wish me a “Happy Thanksgiving”. It was his initiative. I don’t about talk this holiday at home. He’d been reading about it on the internet and knew it was on a Thursday in November. He just missed it by a week, which is pretty good, considering that no one is pushing this holiday here. Many Brazilians know it exists, and that’s about as far as it goes, especially considering that it is not a holiday here and has nothing to do with this country. When he called me, I thanked him, explaining that Thanksgiving is on the fourth Thursday of November. He quickly found a calendar, counted the weeks off and excitedly shouted, “It’s on the 27th! Next week!”

So, here I am. How do I proceed? Do I give the lowdown about how the holiday is wrong, how it should be a national day of atonement, or do I give in to the myth? Identity is a tricky thing and, as much as I love Brazil, I am, first and foremost, an American. It’s in my DNA – almost fifteen generations, not counting my Cherokee ancestors who met the rest of my family at the beach, so to speak. The last five generations have been in Oklahoma. I was raised on the myth. I believed in it when I was his age and now Jack wants to know about and celebrate this holiday – which inevitably leads to the next question: how do I teach my son the history of the land where he was born? How do I teach him about who he is and where he is from? How do I guarantee that he will be able to transit comfortably and knowledgeably between the culture of his homeland and that of his mother’s country, where he is being raised? How can I make sure that he will be comfortable in his skin as both an American and a Brazilian?

The question of his Brazilian identity will take care of itself. He lives here, goes to school here, celebrates its holidays, studies its history at school, speaks its language, which he does everywhere, including at home with his mother. Jack –  for better or worse (and I think it is for better), like it or not (and I do like it) – is also Brazilian. It is the American side of the question that is more difficult. I am the only American he sees, other than his sister Melissa, who is almost five. Everything I say about Jack’s identity also applies to her.

My relationship with my country has been difficult, mostly probably because I was raised on the myth, the promise of equality inherent in its founding documents. I drank deeply from the well as a child and believed what I was taught. The Constitution was, for me, the most sacred of documents. (In fact, it still is, but more on that later.) Its founding fathers were the prophets of a new age where people were free and where those free people would protect and extend that freedom to others. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Patrick Henry, and all of the others were my heroes, my role models. My ancestors  served on the Continental Line and, during the Second World War, my fathers’ generation defended what those earlier heroes had established. They had all fought for freedom and won. Soon, however, I got old enough to see the cracks in our foundations. My hometown’s schools were segregated. I saw the Freedom Riders being attacked, their buses burned on the evening news. I learned about slavery in school but later found out that version had been sanitized. The Indian Wars, well, they just weren’t even really taught, but Dee Brown would change that when he wrote Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. John Kennedy was assassinated, and then his brother Robert and Martin Luther King. There were riots. Vietnam kept rolling on and on and on, seemingly for no good reason. My Lai was uncovered and the Pentagon Papers were published. The lies began mounting and, yet, somehow, I was still naive enough to dress up in Air Force blue, but that lasted for only 361 days, two hours and 27 minutes. The dream had seemingly died and I began fighting back – against the war, against racism, against those violations of the American dream that I had been weaned on. The years passed. We fought more wars, all of which felt like reruns of Vietnam. (They just changed the jungle for the desert.) I left the country, returned, left again, returned again and then left again, this time more or less permanently, but knowing that the United States has a hold on me that I cannot shake.

And now, my son wants to celebrate Thanksgiving... What do I tell him? The truth? Whose truth? Which truth?

If I look deeply into my own heart, I know I must teach him how to decide whose truth to believe. I must teach him to find his own truth – not mine, not the official truth but his own truth. How do I do that? Well, maybe I have to start with what I know: I still deeply love our country. It is home. Its original promise, though unfulfilled, still rings true in my heart. Those early beliefs of mine – enshrined in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the writings of our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) – are what inspired me and made me fight back. Those principles guided me then – and they still do. Our country was founded to establish freedom with justice. We have strayed, failed, fallen down, but somehow keep getting back up and moving forward. Often it seems that we take one step backward for every two steps forward, but we still are moving ever so slowly in the right direction. With all of its problems, we have progressed in the 238 years since declaring our independence and the 391 years since that supposed mythical first Thanksgiving in Plymouth. Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere show us that, but we have also come a long way.

And so that is where I must start with Jack: with the myth, because there is, in fact, a kernel of truth in it. He is only seven, so I will start with that kernel, with that same promise I believed in as a child. It is my obligation to teach him the truth as I understand it but it is also my obligation to give him the tools and the information he needs so he can discern his own truth in the future. I must, however, give him these things in a way that will not overwhelm him. He is young. We have time to get where we need, but to get there, we must take that first step.

Tomorrow, for the first time in my adult life, there will be a real Thanksgiving in my house. When we sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, one of the things I will be most thankful for is my son Jack, who made me realize that it is time for this celebration to finally take place.